Harper Lee, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' author, has died at 89

By KENDAL WEAVER - Associated Press ,

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President Bush, left, presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to author Harper Lee, center, during a ceremony  in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

President Bush, left, presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to author Harper Lee, center, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (Photo: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Harper Lee, the elusive novelist whose child's-eye view of racial injustice in a small Southern town, "To Kill a Mockingbird," became standard reading for millions of young people and an Oscar-winning film, has died. She was 89.

Lee died Friday, publisher HarperCollins said in a statement. It did not give any details about how she died.

"The world knows Harper Lee was a brilliant writer, but what many don't know is that she was an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility and kindness. She lived her life the way she wanted to — in private — surrounded by books and the people who loved her," Michael Morrison, head of HarperCollins U.S. general books group, said in the statement.

For most of her life, Lee divided her time between New York City, where she wrote the novel in the 1950s, and her Alabama hometown, which inspired the book's fictional Maycomb.

"To Kill a Mockingbird," published in 1960, is the story of a girl nicknamed Scout growing up in a Depression-era Southern town. A black man has been wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and Scout's father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, defends him despite threats and the scorn of many.

The book quickly became a best-seller, won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie in 1962, with Gregory Peck winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus. As the civil rights movement grew, the novel inspired a generation of young lawyers and was assigned in schools all over the country.

By 2015, its sales were reported by HarperCollins to be more than 40 million worldwide, making it one of the most widely read American novels of the 20th century. When the Library of Congress did a survey in 1991 on books that have affected people's lives, "To Kill a Mockingbird" was second only to the Bible.

Lee herself became more mysterious as her book became more famous. She began declining interviews in the late 1960s and, until late in her life, firmly avoided making any public comment about her novel or her career. Other than a few magazine pieces for Vogue and McCall's in the 1960s and a review of a 19th-century Alabama history book in 1983, she published no other book until stunning the world in 2015 by permitting "Go Set a Watchman" to be released.

"Watchman" was written before "Mockingbird" but was set 20 years later, using the same location and many of the same characters. Readers and reviewers were disheartened to find an Atticus who seemed nothing like the hero of the earlier book. The man who defied the status quo in "Mockingbird" was now part of the mob in "Watchman," denouncing blacks as unfit to enjoy full equality.

But despite unenthusiastic reviews and questions whether Lee was well enough to approve the publication, "Watchman" jumped to the top of best-seller lists within a day of its announcement and remained there for months.

 

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